They gave me the keys to a Lamborghini. They said it was the LP640 and that it would easily do 200 mph. And I thought: Where can I take this car? Where can a Lamborghini work the way it was intended to work?
Certainly not here in England. I love the place to the point that I never want to live anywhere else, but there can be no doubt that this weenie island off the coast of Europe no longer has the infrastructure or the temperament to cope with a 640-hp Lamborghini. Driving big metal here is frustrating; it's like being given a gasoline-powered radio-controlled car capable of 50 mph and then being allowed to run it only in your kitchen. In the U.K., supercar ownership has become urbanized. Forget all those romanticized notions of Ferrari F40s scampering over expansive moorland blacktop--the world has changed, and an Enzo's natural habitat is now London's Kings Road. Consistent engine cooling under stationary conditions is a more pertinent denominator of required dynamic competence than cam phasing above 5000 rpm. Fast cars are pilloried by a political and social ethos that is no longer willing to accept beautiful, powerful machinery as an expression of man's creativity.
What a shame. We took possession of this remarkable machine in England, and yet the land of warm beer won't figure in the proposed timetable beyond being the port of embarkation and, should all go to plan, return. That's right, there was a plan. It involved a poorly detailed map of Europe and a jumbled collection of memorable places where legal loopholes and space had in the past permitted high speeds. There was hope that they still would. We wanted to let this car unwind in the manner we've always hoped the owners of such machinery would do themselves. We wanted to cover significant distances with significant numbers showing on the LP640's revised speedometer markings (the ones that now read to a stupefying 220 mph). We wanted to exceed three miles per minute whenever the mood took us.
Photographer Barry Hayden and I headed east, boarded a train that travels through a tunnel under the English Channel, and emerged on the other side. Ten miles out of Calais, the twelve-cylinder thrumming along at 2500 rpm, we realize that there's one immense problem with this proposal. We're in a right-hand-drive car, and passenger Hayden is a little short of hearing in his right ear. At the same time, thanks to a TVR Tuscan's self-jettisoning targa panel, I have specific hearing difficulties pertaining to my left ear. Twice in ten minutes I find myself questioning Barry's sanity as he blurts seemingly unconnected words through the swirl of tire, wind, and induction noises that characterize a cruising Murci. Unless he shouts, I can't hear him and vice versa. This doesn't bode well for a five-day sprint through mainland Europe, but despite enjoying Barry's take on life, a 6.5-liter Lamborghini V-12--one whose engine block can be traced back to the first Countach prototype of 1971--is an ample substitute for conversation.
The route we'll take is lengthy. Each leg terminates in a driving environment perfect for this car. First up is Germany and a special stretch of autobahn on which we hope to reach some big figures. Then we'll head south past Frankfurt into France, to Grenoble and perhaps the finest driving road in Europe: the Route Napolon. We'll drive its entire length and drop down onto the Autoroute du Soleil just west of Cannes--where supercars migrate for the summer months--before sprinting to northern Spain and experiencing a stretch of tarmac not usually associated with speed.
Temptation lurks during those early miles in France, because, more than any other highway network in the world, the autoroute is perfectly adapted for speed. The country's toll-road policy was roundly criticized when it was first introduced, but it has proved to be a visionary move. As the rest of Europe's road network crumbles through underfunding, France's highways are as beautifully manicured as a putting green. No jagged repairs, no bumps--just open radii and fine drainage. It's also relatively quiet, so when you enter the roadway in your Murcilago, the speedometer needle seems to acquire a magnetic attraction to the far right-hand side of the dial. Before acquiescing to its needs, though, it is wise to know one small factoid: France is currently in the middle of an antispeeding purge that's being enforced with a zeal not seen since the Spanish Inquisition. Bust the limit a touch and they slap down a fine; get caught rolling at a rate this puppy could hit in twelve seconds from a standing start and they'll confiscate your wheels. No, sir, you don't mess around in France these days. We trundle along at 90 mph--and in this toy, anything below 110 mph is trundling.
We reach Brussels at 11:00 p.m. and then head to Lige on a nasty, pitted, concrete surface. The road is deserted, so a brief joust of speed seems entirely necessary. Belgium has never before figured on anyone's international atlas of speed, but the moment feels right. At 100 mph, two clicks down on the left shift paddle--barrrrumph, baaaaaaarumph--put the V-12 right in the juicy section of its power curve. Then the theater begins.
Induction noise and physical acceleration are the instant ramifications of a punted throttle pedal. The nose rises slightly even from three-figure speeds, but the driver needn't worry, because above all other supercars, the LP640 is supremely stable at high speeds. It needs to be--within ten seconds we're beyond 150 mph. We ease off and take stock. The most remarkable aspect of this car's performance isn't the way it'll spit epic statistics at will, it's more how little time and space is required to register something decidedly naughty. This ability will dominate the coming days.
Power is addictive, so it doesn't take long to relapse and push for even bigger numbers. Fourth gear again, then fifth, and then sixth. The speedometer registers a mind-blowing 216 mph. There we were, thinking it would take a German autobahn at dusk to discover what lay on the other side of 200 mph, yet less than two hours into the journey, the Murci's maximum-speed indicator has registered a number that leaves us speechless. Not that we can hear each other anyway. As we park for the night and shut down the engine, there is a sudden evacuation of noise, the deafening silence that only recently extinguished V-12s are capable of creating.
"So we did two-sixteen, hey Barry."
"Fastest you've been?"
"You enjoy it--the speed, the feeling?"
Cool as iced cucumber, this boy. Two-sixteen and he was adjusting the flash.
Germany follows. Wretched northern Germany. It's only when you drive into the Bundes-republik's industrial heartland that you realize how much Germans love to build stuff. The roads are jammed with trucks. In all honesty, if the dream of extended high-speed running does exist somewhere on this planet, it probably isn't in northern Germany. The moment an "unrestricted" sign appears, a gaggle of turbo-diesel sedans heads directly for the passing lane and commences battle with each other. Often this results in some high speeds, but we're in command of something so punchy that the most frustrating exercise imaginable is following a BMW 5-series as it strains its every sinew to accelerate from 100 mph to 155 mph. When our green monster eventually explodes past these dawdlers, other road users are staggered at the way it pulls clear. These are conditions for 170-mph work, and as we've already found out, you don't need much space or imagination to achieve such levels in the LP640.
There is a road in northern Germany whose credentials are unlike any other. The A31 wends north of Bottrop toward the Dutch border in what every road atlas of the area charts in an entirely unspectacular manner. The information these maps don't share is that besides causing all vehicles from the area to have license plates stamped with the amusing prefix BOT, it's also home to a company called Brabus. And for the past twenty years, the A31 is where Brabus has tested its own perverse take on the fast sedan.
Locating this road has proved problematic in the past, but the Lambo's complicated navigation system somehow picks the correct exit, and we head north. All's good. Before it very quickly turns bad. It happens so fast: the narrow lanes, the truck, the hideous shriek of composite meeting steel, the sudden bout of nausea. The homicidal urge to follow that truck driver to the ends of the earth and wreak furious vengeance on him and his mullet. Then residual highway noise in the distance and me standing over the passenger side of a stationary LP640 that is now missing a chunk of carbon fiber from one of its vestigial cooling pits.
The lanes had narrowed to the point that the Lambo's hips were straddling both lines, as were the truck's. Stuck alongside him, I gunned the car in second, and just at the moment I was praying for him not to wobble, the bastard wobbled. Truck wheels loomed big in the windows and I flinched, sending Barry's backside into the temporary steel guardrail to the left. I hate myself for flinching. I hate that trucker. But I hate damaging something so wonderful even more. Screw Germany. I won't bat an eyelid if I never see the place again.The damage is cosmetic, so we join the golf-cart-sized road once again, and I pucker up for what will be the most unpleasant fifteen miles of driving in my life.
Relief comes. The A31 is busier than I remember, but that soon changes on account of this road's unique feature. It goes nowhere. The A31 simply comes to an end in the middle of somewhere, and this is the key to its importance as a test route. Change direction, and this is a highway with no exit for six miles southbound: all you have to do is wait for a gap big enough and you have your own 200-mph proving facility. Funded by the taxpayers. We're running fast northward when Barry points out that the nav system seems to think we're traveling in a field at 175 mph. The road appears ominously fresh and new. Jesus H: the road that went nowhere found somewhere to go. I can't believe it. We crashed to reach this place, and it no longer exists. So we clock 205 mph a few times and leave, never to return.
So this is the state of play. The two humans are dejected souls: the photographer on account of the murky German sunlight and the driver because he has the spilled blood of a Murcilago on his hands. But the third member, the one that was thumped into the guardrail and is being driven at enhanced speed toward Cologne and then Frankfurt, is completely unfazed. Oh, and just in case it isn't already clear, I hate Germany.
At the risk of sounding boring and worthy: Lamborghini's real achievement with this car is the way that it has sanitized something with almost twice the power of a base Porsche 911 into a machine capable of covering great distances with no hint of histrionics. Just because it doesn't break, don't assume this is Eric the half-a-supercar. Scoring one for this exercise was hard enough, because, of the twelve cars used to introduce it to the automotive press last year, only five have survived. That nearly became four. The LP640 bites like no Lambo since the LP500S on shoddy Pirellis.
Grenoble's teenagers aren't prepared for a Lamborghini being perched half on the sidewalk that night, so they stand around it and whoop for hours. When we leave the following morning, the town virtually stops. As long as people respond to cars such as this in that way, life will be worth living.
As unassuming road names go, the N85 is the prince of understatement. It connects Grenoble with the town of Grasse and is known to everyone as the Route Napolon, so named after France's favorite military son who once traced the same path.
What a road. It's only when I drive this car over such fabulous asphalt that it dawns on me what a disservice I paid the LP640 in reducing its currency to simple V-max terms. If its stability and straightline speed render the standard Murcilago redundant--and believe me, this car is a whole chunk faster--then the way it conducts itself here is mesmerizing. Heaven isn't a half-pipe: it's the N85 south of Gap, traces of espresso and Gitanes on the lips from a long lunch, and a tank of high-octane juice to burn. The damping is fluid, the steering is accurate, the noise is addictive--and the traction control should ideally be left on. This is the difference between the LP640 and lesser Lambos. Cranking the output beyond 600 hp has left it feeling more like a rear-driven car than one with four-wheel drive. It's a simple case of torque overload: any excess now heads to the rear axle. And that means slithering. We--me, Barry, and the Lambo's 335-section-width rear tires--slithered a lot on the N85. But afterward, we kept the traction control switched on.
Spanish road signs arrive too slowly. It takes an age to make our way south, but the rewards are worthwhile. You see, Spain moves fast (so much is expected of the land that produced Carlos Sainz and Fernando Alonso). Expansive, three-lane sections climb and fall, and even at 120 mph, you're never the fastest mover. Soon, Spain will go the way of France and begin to persecute fast-moving vehicles, but for now, we're lucky. We head for a place called Burgos, where the E5 cuts through a canyon toward Madrid: epic scenery and space to play. Ask someone where a Lambo can really do what a Lambo should, and they'll say Germany. They'll be wrong. The Route Napolon and the E5 sixty miles south of Burgos serve the car better.
There's one extra stop to make on the route home--the Millau Viaduct, which, at 1125 feet, is the world's tallest bridge. You've got to admire the French: under the specter of a poor economy, they decided to spend $509 million bridging a valley, and now they neglect to use the thing. As we cruised over its 1.5-mile span, there was only a light scattering of traffic. If ever you are in Europe and have the means, experience this road. We can bestow upon it no higher honor than this: even in an LP640, you go slowly and absorb the magnificence.
Then we headed home. And that was it. Five days, 4000 miles, 216 mph. Oh, and in case you're wondering, Lamborghini still builds the best supercar on planet Earth.